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The Problem of Meaning




The Problem of Meaning


   The following inquiry is an attempt at an objective exploration of the human existential condition in relation to meaning. I will disregard all that I do not know on the basis of evidence, leaving few of the big questions unanswered, as I perceive their answer to be truly beyond our current knowledge. I will investigate the notions of meaning given by both religious and secular points of view and apply them to the lives of individuals to evaluate their practical effects.

   The idea of objectively meditating over a problem demands one important tool that I call simplicity. By simplicity I am referring to a principal aimed at discarding speculations and resolving a situation by the given characteristics that it holds. It is a utilitarian view as far as a notion is tested by its consequences and its utility to its subject. In the case of meaning, any notion of that sort should be investigated by its wide implications on the lives it attempts to attribute meaning to in the first place.

   The starting point of such an inquiry must first define our condition in a manner that objectively describes all that we know as facts. For human beings as a biological species the starting point is rather vague; we know that we have slowly developed over a vast stretch of time; we know that at first our behavior was not different than that of any other animal species, holding survival as a primary guideline. We know that at a certain point in time (which is highly debated in the scientific community) we found ourselves having consciousness, yet lacking an instruction manual that would tell us how to use it.

   We can imagine such a chaotic state in which there is no intrinsic value or right. We can assume that most individuals were not so preoccupied with the question until it struck them in the face in forms of loss or grief or pain or any manner in which they felt those inherent feelings of sorrow. We know that at first some specialized gods (of rain, thunder, sea, etc.) were created to account for the hardship of being severely affected by events that we could not have explained otherwise. We know that a notion of hierarchy such as one that places us beneath a stronger element is an inherent human inclination due to the social construct that we first encounter; that of living under the power of parents, rulers, or wise man of the clan. We know that at the first spark of understanding an answer was needed to account for who and what we are. The above question is far deeper then mere curiosity for it determines what we, as human beings, ought to do.

   At the current state of events people are far more comfortable with their existence. Whether religious or secular, both perceive the world in a manner in which man is, in practice, the "measure of all things." Whether it is the religious believer that actually perceives himself as acting a role in a divine grand play, or the skeptic that reassures himself by resorting to himself as the center of his meaning, both find themselves at relative ease with their own tools of understanding, both believe that their own categorical imperative is enough to answer the question of meaning.

   Both are severely disillusioned at first contact with the notion of meaninglessness. The idea of meaninglessness stems directly from an understanding of a few basic facts: we all die; we all hold very little affect on the world as a whole. The realization of our own mortality often threatens to surface, and eventually it does. So does the realization of how temporal, and possibly random, our existential reality actually is. It is the moment in which the walls of social ideals collapse; the ideals that create motivation and aspiration are enough to drive a person which is embedded in the social product that he represents, yet for the person that is able to look past common social knowledge and value, those ideals do not fill the new void of meaninglessness.

   It is then that a crucial crossroads faces the newly enlightened: either a straight-out Tillichian God, or a deeper introspection at the sources of meaninglessness. The Tillichian option requires a reaffirmation of faith in a manner that grants meaning to the life of the believer. It is here that the path of Saul and Neo radically diverges. Saul is a religious believer; he perceives his highest commitment to be the one he holds towards his God; he lives his life according to religious piety, such that holds good and evil to be intrinsically determined values. Neo is a skeptic; he perceives his highest commitment to be the one he holds towards himself; he lives his life according to nihilistic nothingness; such that holds good and evil to be wonderful human inventions, and nothing more.

   Neo is faithful to the principal of simplicity; the idea of evaluating a given state by all that is available as evidence seems to him to be the most reasonable way of acting and decision-making. The agnostic answer he would argue for is that our sense of meaninglessness originates in a misapplied question. The original quest for our own meaning is misguided by the human assumption that as any device that we can manufacture, so do we, as devices, have a purpose; and therefore, a meaning. Yet as far as we know we randomly evolved. And so did our beliefs and introspections. It is easily conceivable for us to think that a fly?s life has no grand meaning. Yet it is difficult for us to turn the same critical view towards ourselves; that is, to understand that human life, by virtue of its ephemerallity and finitude, shares the fly?s meaninglessness.

   At such an obliteration of meaning Saul would be outraged for it denies all that serves as his prime motive. Neo could easily demonstrate how meaninglessness is an inherent human trait as long as God does not exist. He can simply ask the question "Why?" for several times in a row in face of any claim of meaning; if Saul claims that his meaning is found in being good to his wife, Neo could ask him why; for Saul?s answer that it makes her happy, Neo could ask "So?"

   As far as Saul is concerned, the conflict is settled by his belief in God and in all that his existence decrees. Saul has a finite answer for his problem of meaninglessness: he believes that he was created by a Deity; he believes that the act of his creation is a part of a grand play of life in which he has a role he ought to play out; he draws comfort from the notion of unquestionable good and evil, prize and punishment. The source of his comfort stems from the ability to look at life?s rules as a given set of directions and act accordingly. He holds his life to have meaning due to the rules of God and piety. He therefore enjoys freedom to choose what would make his life feel fulfilled under the arching authority of divine imperatives. Most of the former divinity only adds to a feeling of intrinsic meaning in the life of the believer. The notion of divine approval strengthens the feeling of fulfillment when acting according to its rules; it does so because the definition of "divine" is, by its own definition, far greater or stronger than any positive reinforcement that a fellow human being might bestow upon us.

   While Saul?s life is at ease, even under the cliffordian risk of adopting a false belief, Neo?s problem is only starting to surface. He faces the unavoidable task of assigning values to intrinsically meaningless beings. That is, he must now try to argue why, in fact, human beings should be held to have a higher value then that of a fly. He thinks that a certain human ability to identify with a fellow human?s condition could be a key to the assignment of value (along the lines of Hume?s "Sentiment of Humanity").

   He would argue that an advanced society could preserve social cohesion as grounded in each individual?s own interest to preserve their own life, family, and property; leading all to agree upon the rules of conduct required for social order. He perceives his own problem of meaninglessness as a hoax; for it is he, in his own view, which should be the only one to determine his meaning. Neo?s sense of meaning is narrower than that offered by religion; he holds meaning to be a self-assigned goal or purpose (which could range from a challenge to an ideal value), and the fulfillment of the two. He can therefore share Saul?s freedom to choose what would make his life feel fulfilled, yet under non-but his own scrutiny. In this total freedom Neo can prosper as long as he finds enough goals and their gratifications, yet all of his goals are reversible by his own decision, and so is the gratification that follows.

   Here Saul would argue that the task that Neo thinks he has fulfilled poses a problem in itself. Whatever careful judgment he might apply, Neo now finds himself fighting a reverse process; that is, by religion human beings are intrinsically valuable and meaningful; they must be respected according to their fare share of God?s earth; they are, from birth, far more valuable than a fly for they hold a special role in the grand-scheme of the Deity. Science, on the other hand, does not reserve a special place of value for a human being; it is as random and coincidental as any other animal and even the notion of its death is not intrinsically bad, it is just another fact. In the case of scientific empiricism no inherent value is assigned for a human being aside from the fact that that is what we are and therefore that is why it is, and should be, the "measure of all things."

   Here Neo might again feel rather comfortable with the clean-cut notion of simplicity: he would argue that as random and ephemeral as our situation is, those are the conditions of our existence (and the only ones we are certain of); by them we analyze and interpret our reality, and by them we experience it in the first place. Therefore it is by this very cluster of set conditions that we must make our instruction manual and reality; our meanings and values. So in affect, the agnostic?s claim for meaning argues for an understanding of his condition as given circumstances, and their acceptance as the only ones we have. From that starting point, all is open for the human will to follow its own inclinations.

   Saul, in his turn, would claim that it is a misguided notion to think that if religion was to be proved false, it would have meant only the elimination of the concept of God. He might argue that it is a wide spread misconception to think that eliminating God would not harm the value assigned to the individual person, not to mention his sense of meaning. Most people can claim to be secular, while failing to realize that the notions they take for granted, such as meaning, intrinsic value, destiny, good, or even goal or gratification, are strongly embedded within the religious social byproduct. Most secular people do not realize that forming their own meaning, if done properly, faces a total void of primary importance.

   It is here that Neo would strongly resist the notion that our human sentiment leans on divine guidance. He would argue that in fact we could make a strong case for morality as separated from religion. He would argue that the same divine grand play, which as greater then one?s self grants meaning, is parallel to that of society, which as greater than one?s self grants equal meaning. He would argue that by introspection we can see that we are faced with an abundance of intrinsic values and meanings. Such characteristics of human behavior such as love, friendship, commitment, care, are all, in the agnostic?s point of view, intrinsically valuable.

   Saul, in return, would argue that the religious notion of meaning is, by definition, stronger than that of the secular humanist; for by the mere placing of another level of importance above that of society, a higher source of meaning is found, one not questionable or open to interpretation. He would find the secular claim especially problematic for its easy reversibility; taken to extreme, it means that you only respect a fellow man?s right to live if you choose to attribute any value to him, and you can simply choose not to attribute any value whatsoever. In the religious case, on the other hand, a human being?s value is intrinsically unquestionable. While it might be possible to conduct an indifferent society on the grounds of excessive police work, it seems that in the heart of that society, if it truly believed a human being to be originally meaningless and only later found valuable by themselves, a place for a deep "sentiment of humanity" would be little to none.

   In effect, Saul would argue that the agnostic?s way is a reverse process; where a human being is not intrinsically valuable, important, meaningful, virtuous; but a starting point by which the human being is an accidental occurrence, one that we could either choose to attribute value to, or not. And that whatever value we choose to assign to ourselves, it would still be a self-assigned value that we could always reassign, therefore being a weaker value in its moral grounding than the religious one. Neo claims that Saul?s "stronger" moral foundation does not exist.

   The above stale-mate involves a questioning regarding human nature; it is a question of whether human beings are such that they would even want, at all times, to respect their fellow man?s value on their own accord. It is a question that questions the ability of a human sentiment to hold in front of conflicting desires. It is a question that could be argued both ways on the basis of exhibited human behavior throughout recorded history. Yet on the individual level, the effect of a sense of meaning could be more clearly analyzed.

   In Saul?s case, he finds meaning in both his commitment to God and his commitment to his society under the divine rules of conduct. He feels his life would be fulfilled if he can follow his own inclinations under the religious guidelines. He can always perceive his condition, good or bad, as part of God?s grand scheme and therefore truly accept it.

   Neo finds equal (equal as far as both perceive their meaning as their ultimate) meaning in his commitment to himself and his society. He feels his life would be fulfilled if he can follow his own inclinations under secular moral guidelines. Yet he perceives his condition, good or bad, as only dependant on his own doing and on facts that he cannot change. It seems that both can live a meaningful life in their own points of view as long as each is able to follow their own path of fulfillment. Yet for when things go wrong, and they both find themselves in a bad condition that they are unable to change, Saul takes comfort in God, Neo cannot.

   The above reveals the main difference between the two points of view on the practical level: Given that both can retain meaning and value on their own terms, the grand explanation for why things are as they are is all that makes a difference; while religion backs the claim that everything happens for a reason (in the sense of a pre-planned divine order), in the secular world, everything just happens; for empirical reasons that can be traced, yet not for any greater end. The notion of accountability is therefore different, for if Saul was ever to lose his son to an accident, he could draw great comfort from the notion that God must have a reason; yet if Neo was to face the same misfortune, random cause and effect serves as little comfort.

   The question is therefore whether comfort is important enough to allow us to adopt a belief that lacks evidence. The answer for that is simple; for some it is, and for some it is not. Some find enough comfort in themselves, some do not. All other aspects of the problem of meaning do not really matter on the practical level; for if an individual feels he has a meaning, whether secular or religious, and therefore feels his life has been fulfilled, the possibility of his convictions being false (which can theoretically happen for both cases) is not a real concern.

   What we, as human beings, might ought to do, is to accept in complete disregard to God, King, and Country, that we find intrinsic value in life, as we know it to be. The above does not match the religious meaning in terms of glory and importance; rather it is a reasonable truth that is the strongest that we can make out of our current condition as based on evidence. Yet in terms of coping with hardships I unfortunately think that the religious explanation might still today provide far more comfort to the vast majority. It therefore places me in an awkward position: though I find the religious explanation to be a human creation, when a person is in crisis that he is unable to resolve or cope with by himself, it might be the explanation that in practice serves him slightly better. Better than a non-explanation for that matter.

Ohad Maiman